I met Marie* in 2008 on my first trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo with the global health organization PSI. She was celebrating her 28th birthday and she was the most sought-after hairdresser in her community. Just a few years earlier, her life was very different.
Marie’s parents abandoned her and her four siblings when she was 13 because they couldn’t afford to care for them. It was only when her little brother died of starvation before her eyes that Marie began selling her body in order to feed her brothers and sisters. With virtually no information or access to modern contraception, it’s no surprise that within a year, she became pregnant. She did what many women in her situation do — she resorted to unsafe abortion, which landed her in the hospital. To pay for her treatment, she was forced to have exploitative sex with more men for pennies.
At age 23, Marie met a PSI peer educator who told her about HIV prevention and ways to safeguard her reproductive health; she helped Marie enroll in training and find work as a hair stylist. Now, Marie works full-time as a hairdresser. She earns enough money to support herself and her siblings.
Marie said she wants children one day, but she was waiting for now. She had little extra time to spend with me as she was doing the hair for a wedding party in her village.
There is hardly a day that goes by that I don’t think about Marie. When presented with basic health information and vocational training, she transformed her life and she created a ripple effect. She changed the lives of her siblings and the next generation of her family. Her family has a roof over their head, access to basic health care and food to eat, so they can focus on school and their future. Marie is gainfully employed and contributing to her community, which builds the economy.
Marie’s story is a reminder that good health is a crucial building block in the path out of poverty and that when we invest in girls and women, we lift families, communities and countries. So why is it that the health and rights of girls and women are not getting greater attention when we know investing in them provides incredible social and economic benefits?
A recent study by the Guttmacher Institute and United Nations Population Fund estimates that 222 million women in developing countries who want to avoid pregnancy lack access to effective methods of contraception and voluntary family planning information and services.
The 2013 U.N. Millennium Development Goals Report noted that women are much more likely to contract HIV than men. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, more than 380,000 young women became infected in 2012 compared to 180,000 young men.
The report also found that girls across 63 developing countries are more likely to be out of school than boys among both primary and lower secondary age groups, which negatively affects their health. Girls who stay in school during adolescence have a later sexual debut, are less likely to be subjected to forced sex and, if sexually active, are more likely to use contraception than their age peers who are out of school.
Decision-making power also factors into a woman’s life, and again the majority of women in developing countries are not able to take charge of their health, education, jobs and opportunities to reach even higher to leadership roles outside their home.
How do we make sure that women like Marie do not have to put their health and safety at risk to take care of their family? How can we enable a mother to be a strong role model for her daughter? How can we keep girls in school?
Here are five things that can be done:
1. Meet the unmet need for family planning. Filling this gap could reduce the number of unintended pregnancies from 80 million to 26 million.
2. Provide affordable quality maternal health care to all women. About 80 percent of maternal deaths could be averted if women had access to essential maternity and basic health-care services.
3. End child marriage. More than 15 million out of 135 million live births worldwide are among women between the ages of 15 and 19. Girls younger than 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s.
4. Stop gender-based violence. Some 30 percent of women around the world have experienced intimate partner violence.
5. Achieve universal enrollment for girls in primary and secondary education. While we’ve seen progress in enrollment, there needs to be a concerted effort to improve learning outcomes and overcome challenges like violence against girls in school.
More than ever, women are stepping into high-profile leadership roles in government, corporate and nonprofit sectors. This revolution shouldn’t stop at the borders of wealthy nations. As women on the world stage, we must join together with trailblazers like Malawian President Joyce Banda and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to create a safer, healthier and more equal world for the next generation of women.
Time passes quickly. Let’s make sure history will show that we did all we can for the women leaders of tomorrow.
*Out of respect for her privacy, I’ve changed my young friend’s name to Marie.
Celebrated actress and humanitarian Ashley Judd became an ambassador for PSI in 2002 and joined as a board member in 2004. Judd has visited the slums, brothels, schools and clinics that PSI programs target in more than 10 countries. She has visited legislators on Capitol Hill, addressed members of the United Nations on human trafficking, and testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for the protection of vulnerable women from violence, sexual abuse and HIV.